Ursula K. Le Guin – The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas | Review

New Dimensions 3

Ursula K. Le Guin – “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” from New Dimensions 3, Robert Silverberg, ed. (1973)

Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” presents an excellent example of what Alenka Zupancic described as “liberal blackmail”.  Le Guin tells a story of a “utopian” city that has a child imprisoned in essentially a torture dungeon.  The liberal blackmail is stated quite succinctly by her:

“If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. *** The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.”

This is blackmail because it insists on a reductionist binary.  Either people stay in the city and keep torturing the child, or they walk away from Omelas.  No third option is permitted.  It is liberal because the first option (where the child is tortured) is basically standard liberalism.  Domenico Losurdo has explained this in books like Liberalism: A Counter-History (2014).  Liberalism is a politics of exclusion, a kind of false universalism that separates the society of the free from those unworthy of freedom.  Le Guin’s short story is basically an extremely blunt depiction of this basic — if disavowed — premise of political liberalism.  Sure, other social structures like feudalism oppress certain groups but they don’t profess freedom like the society of Omelas that Le Guin describes in the story.

The other option, of “walking away from Omelas,” is basically what the philosopher Hegel called the “Beautiful soul” problem.  Here, Zupancic explains the dynamic well:

“The rise of the affect(s) and the sanctimony around affective intuition are very much related to some signifiers being out of our reach, and this often involves a gross ideological mystification. Valorization of affectivity and feelings appears at the precise point when some problem — injustice, say — would demand a more radical systemic revision as to its causes and perpetuation. This would also involve naming — not only some people but also social and economic inequalities that we long stopped naming and questioning.

“Social valorization of affects basically means that we pay the plaintiff with her own money: oh, but your feelings are so precious, you are so precious! The more you feel, the more precious you are. This is a typical neoliberal maneuver, which transforms even our traumatic experiences into possible social capital. If we can capitalize on our affects, we will limit out protests to declarations of these affects — say, declarations of suffering — rather than becoming active agents of social change. I’m of course not saying that suffering shouldn’t be expressed and talked about, but that this should not ‘freeze’ the subject into the figure of the victim. The revolt should be precisely about refusing to be a victim, rejecting the position of the victim on all possible levels.


“this bind derives precisely from the subjective gain or gratification that this positioning offers. (Moral) outrage is a particularly unproductive affect, yet it is one that offers considerable libidinal satisfaction. By ‘unproductive’ I mean this: it gives us the satisfaction of feeling morally superior, the feeling that we are in the right and others are in the wrong. Now for this to work, things must not really change. We are much less interested in changing things than in proving, again and again, that we are in the right, or on the right side, the side of the good. Hegel invented a great name for this position: the ‘beautiful soul.’ A ‘beautiful soul’ sees evil and baseness all around it but fails to see to what extent it participates in the perpetuation of that same order of things. The point of course is not that the world isn’t really evil, the point is that we are part of this evil world.”

“Too Much of Not Enough: An Interview with Alenka Zupančič”

If her explanation still seems difficult to grasp, the concept can be more succinctly summed up this way:

“They play the Beautiful Soul, which feels superior to the corrupted world while secretly participating in it: they need this corrupted world as the only terrain where they can exert their moral superiority.”

Slavoj Žižek, Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbors: Against the Double Blackmail (2016).

Those who “walk away from Omelas” do nothing to change its underlying horror.  They only go away to exist outside its geographic borders, thereby using the existence of Omelas to exert their moral superiority.  In other words, they need Omelas and its torture dungeon in order to self-identify as morally superior individuals — walking away actually supports the continued functioning of Omelas and its torture dungeon.  The “beautiful souls” who walk away merely turn the traumatic experience of confronting the torture dungeon into social capital, but rationalize its continuation.

In the 1970s, Le Guin took a turn towards neoliberal feminism, or what might be called cultural feminism or even bourgeois feminism.  Usually portrayed as her becoming more politically conscious, rather the opposite is true.  She really made a turn much like the so-called “new philosophers” to the political right.  She embraced the tactics of identity politics and the valorization of victimhood status.  She was much more of a careerist opportunist than she is often portrayed by supporters, cynically invoking certain concepts to enhance her public status (and boost her book sales) without doing a whole lot to meaningfully change anything beyond a few gendered pronouns, with at most a slightly populist twist.  Her best work was in the 1960s and early 1970s, and it dealt with typical concerns of the time. For instance, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) deals with the destructive power of envy, something that French writers were grappling with under the rubric of ressentiment.  She jettisoned those things in the 70s and instead dwelt on identity politics.  There is reason to suggest that “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” is at bottom anti-communist propaganda.  Little if any of her writing after her anarchist masterpiece The Dispossessed (1974) is very highly regarded by readers.

So, back to the short story.  Le Guin cited William James, and his “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” claiming that only those who remain in Omelas are accepting a bargain.  But this is demonstrably false — those who walk away from Omelas are bargaining too and merely offer a different rationalization.  The most obvious ethical response that avoids an element of bargaining is to simply reject Le Guin’s stupid Manichean premise and do precisely what she states is impossible:  change the structure of the society of Omelas.  An excellent analogy in (science-)fiction is the way Captain James T. Kirk in the Star Trek franchise defeated the “Kobayashi Maru test” as a student at “Starfleet Academy” by reprogramming the test computer to make the no-win scenario winnable.  Or Josef Stalin’s famous retort to a journalist who asked him which deviation is worse, the Rightist one (Bukharin) or the Leftist one (Trotsky), responding, “They are both worse!”  Franz Kafka‘s The Trial (1925) included the parable of the door to the law, which is also more or less a relevant counterpart, if a more individual and pessimistic one about overcoming seemingly impossible obstacles.  The point is to reject the false binary choice the short story presents as a form of blackmail, conspiracy, or propaganda.  Or, let’s tentatively grant Le Guin her conceit that the “terms are strict and absolute” in this Omelas society.  Then, the solution is Bartleby politics, after the character in Herman Melville‘s short story “Bartleby, The Scrivener” who did nothing to carry out his social role but to answer, “I would prefer not to.”  Would you stay in Omelas?  “I would prefer not to.”  Would you walk away from Omelas?  “I would prefer not to.”  Ah, but then the terms would suddenly not be so strict and absolute as the society fails to reproduce itself and disappears…at great peril and cost to those who prefer not to, like Melville’s Bartleby who dies in jail.  So, it would be Bartleby politics or you walk away from Omelas and come back with an army to destroy it…

Josh Cook – World War II’s Poisonous Masculine Legacy

In his review of Jared Yates Sexton’s The Man They Wanted Me to Be: Toxic Masculinity and a Crisis of Our Own Making (2019), under the title “World War II’s Poisonous Masculine Legacy,” Josh Cook makes the following statement:

“Some of the racist, sexist, and homophobic vitriol spewed at Trump rallies is performative, spewed by men who did not believe it, or at least with that intensity, but were afraid their masculinity would be questioned if they did not pose as an angry, hateful Trump supporter, who doesn’t care about your feelings. Many of Trump’s supporters engaged in the same kind of pissing contest as internet trolls, where the point was not actually to advance an idea, but to prove how tough you personally are through a specific demonstration of emotional disregard and potential, and occasionally actual, violence.”

This is an important statement — though hardly a novel one, see “Ten Must-Read Books About White Masculinity and the Rise of Trump”.

But what is missing (the elephant in the room), is that Cook’s critiques of performative identity do not address his own performative identity.  Read his review, and one is left with the sense Cook is performing the identity of the sensitive (beautiful soul) male who would never advocate violence.  The problem here is that this nonviolence seems to be advocated precisely when violence is ethically justified.  On the one hand, insistence upon non-violence is one of the hallmarks of cold war (neo)liberalism.  On the other hand, advocacy of non-violence as the sole legitimate strategy is both a self-serving myth and a form of liberal blackmail meant to de-legitimate systemic change.  This is a problem inscribed in the kind of identity politics that Cook takes as a given, which tend to trivialize the difficulty in switching identities that are adopted unconsciously and pursue a tactic of shaming/guilting opposed groups into submission.  Consequently, such “identity politics” tactics simply don’t work at the broader political level particularly when there are real disagreements between social classes:

“As Yuval Harari noted, in his Homo Deus, people feel bound by democratic elections only when they share a basic bond with most other voters. If the experience of other voters is alien to me, and if I believe they don’t understand my feelings and don’t care about my vital interests, then even if I am outvoted by 100 to one, I have absolutely no reason to accept the verdict. Democratic elections are a method to settle disagreements between people who already agree on the basics. When this agreement on basics falters, the only procedures at our disposal are negotiations or (civil) war. That’s why the Middle East conflict cannot be solved by elections but only by war or negotiations.”

This problem with Cook’s analysis is compounded by his rather confused invocation of “abuse” in relation to the concept of “trauma” and, more broadly, using the term “violence” in a way that seems to (purposefully) exclude systemic violence.

Cook seems to argue that “toxic masculinity” performance should be ceased.  Aside from the problem of defining exactly what is “toxic” here, or why it is specifically “masculine”, that seems well-meaning.  But readers should be questioning the performances that Cook implicitly substitutes because they are just as problematic, and Cook provides no conceptual framework for analyzing the normative ideological battle he fights.  He rejects some ideologies and endorses others.  But his reasons for choosing one over the other are not explicitly discussed in any way.  They are instead naturalized as if they are neutral and unworthy of discussion or potential dispute. Sounds a lot like his point is not actually to advance an idea, but to prove how “sensitive” he personally is through a specific demonstration of alleged moral superiority and a resort to emotional blackmail, coupled with potential/implied coercive ostracism.  We see that his objective is not about overcoming social hierarchies but shuffling them like a game of musical chairs.  When will Cook be cured of this “chronic illness”?  If the goal of ideology is to conceal its aims of domination, then Cook’s analysis is principally ideological, and somewhat totalitarian at that.  It is “predicated on the idea that a non-toxic identity and life can be had[,]” but what if “this toxicity is precisely where our humanity, our subjectivity, resides”?  In this sense, Cook’s invocation of “toxic masculinity is “a gross oversimplification, with possible quite catastrophic consequences for emancipatory movements.”  The more urgent point is the one Henry Giroux later made (drawing on the notion of victimhood status under neoliberal capitalism):

“At its heart, the alignment of white masculinity with the racist discourse of hate and xenophobia has to be condemned while also understood as a mode of depoliticization. As a mode of depoliticization, this script of victimhood robs poor and middle-class whites of their sense of agency and possibilities for individual and collective resistance against the very forces of structured inequality and economic and social abandonment produced by neoliberalism.


“This is particularly true for segments of the white male population who are constantly being told that they are the victims of a society that increasingly privileges racial and ethnic minorities.

“Susceptible to calls by demagogues to express their anger and resentment at the societal selfishness, greed, and materialism that surrounds them, many white males have found a sense of identification and community in the racist, sexist and xenophobic appeals of a range of current demagogues that include Trump, Bolsonaro, Orbán, and Erdoğan. While I don’t want to excuse the poisonous politics at work here and its dangerous flirtation with a kind of fascistic irrationality and the toxic pleasures of authoritarianism, the white males seduced by the pleasures of a toxic authoritarianism need to be addressed in a language that not only speaks to the roots of their fears and economic securities, but also as Michael Lerner has brilliantly noted, to those fundamental psychological and spiritual needs that have been hijacked by a ruthless capitalist disimagination machine.


“The pain and suffering of different groups under neoliberalism has to be understood not through shaming whites or other supporters of a fascist politics, but through efforts to unite these disillusioned groups across race, gender, and class divides.”

In other words this fits into a de-politicization (or “university discourse”) based on envy, with fetishist enjoyment of impotent rage proffered as a kind of bribe to accept a destructive social structure.  Or basically what the French have long called ressentiment.  But class struggle is an alternative to this populist temptation.

Saritha Prabhu – The Coming Civil War in the Democratic Party Won’t Be Pretty

Link to an article by Saritha Prabhu:

“The Coming Civil War in the Democratic Party Won’t Be Pretty”


Bonus links: “Was I right to back Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton? Absolutely” (“by the way, the proper name of this ‘civil war’ is class struggle”) and “Democrats and the Politics of Change” (“the Democrat’s aversion to left political programs is more probably stated as deference to existing power. This is the central impediment to democratic action within the Democratic Party. The Democrat’s fear isn’t of losing elections, but of winning them with a mandate to upend the existing order.”) and “Bernie Sanders and the Realignment of the American Left” and “US Enters Brutal Ideological Civil War as Four-party System Begins to Take Form” and “Class Conflict is Stronger than Clan Conflict” and “Why the Democratic and Republican Establishments Can’t Stop Insurgents” and “The Party’s Over: Bernie’s Last Dance With The Dems” and “CNN’s Attempted Hit Job on Sanders and Warren” (excellent summary of corporate media advocacy for one side in this class war within the Democratic party) and “Don’t Let Anyone Tell You Bernie Sanders Isn’t Electable” and “The Big Lie Democratic Centrists Are Telling About 2018” (the prose is a little hard to follow but this puts context around some tactics of the class war being fought within the Democratic party) and “Why the Democratic Establishment Can’t Stand Rashida Tlaib” and “MSNBC’s Anti-Sanders Bias Makes It Forget How to Do Math” and “Here’s the Evidence Corporate Media Say Is Missing of WaPo Bias Against Sanders” and “Truth Is Many Democrat ‘Moderates’ Prefer Trump to Sanders in 2020 White House Race” and Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics (1987)

John Molyneux – How Fast is the Climate Changing?

Link to an article by John Molyneux:

“How Fast is the Climate Changing?”


Bonus quote:

“That the capitalist class is most interested in protecting its power, position, wealth and way of life means that the struggle to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of global warming is a class struggle. It is a struggle for power — not a struggle over morality or individual consumer choices. The capitalist class holds out the promise of ‘more of the same’ because that is the way that it can continue to accumulate wealth while working people get the same raw deal of exploitation, racism and oppression that they have for centuries.”

Jodi Dean, “Climate Change Is Class War”

See also “Global Warming and U.S. National Security Diplomacy” and “The Discovery and Rediscovery of Metabolic Rift” and “Endangered Species Act: A Failure Worth Fighting For?”